For Army veteran Alfredo De Los Santos, handcycling has not only served as a form of rehabilitation but also a means to incorporate back into society after a life-changing combat injury in Afghanistan in 2008.
“At first, I didn’t want to get out and do anything,” says Alfredo, a right-leg amputee who also endured traumatic brain injury, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of being struck by an RPG while serving as a staff sergeant in Afghanistan. “I tried to commit suicide a few times, but then, I saw the light. I found a group of guys through Paralyzed Veterans of America who were like me and had been through what was I was going through.”
While Alfredo grew up playing baseball, his first and greatest passion up until his injury had always been dancing – namely Salsa and other types of Latin dance. It was that love for dancing that he felt the greatest loss for following his injury. “When I lost my leg, I didn’t care about anything else but that I wouldn’t be able to dance,” he says. “But I still have my left leg, and that is what I use to modify my steps. It’s not the same, but I can still move.”
Still, Alfredo is grateful for the new passions and friendships his injury has enabled him to develop. While he found handcycling through his initial rehabilitation, he continues that journey every time he gets on his bike or races with one of his fellow disabled veterans on the Paralyzed Veterans Racing team.
“PVR is not just a racing team; it’s a movement,” he says. “What I like about Paralyzed Veterans is that it gives you the opportunity to be a part of something. Some want to do it recreationally and others competitively, but it gives you the option to go out there and be happy. That’s what it’s all about.”
Despite his humble attitude towards his competition in the H4 category, Alfredo has been one of Paralyzed Veterans Racing rising stars. In 2013, he was one of five Paralyzed Veterans Racing members selected to the U.S. team in the UCI Cycling Road World Championships in Bale-Comeau, Canada.
Alfredo also competes in cross-country skiing and participates in other adaptive sports, including volleyball, discus and shot put.
But while sports have satisfied his physical rehabilitation, it’s painting and art that have served as an outlet for his psychological recovery. “I’m still getting nightmares and dealing with some aggression,” he says. “But when I paint, I bring that out. It’s a way for me to see that I’m in control of whatever it is I’m seeing.”
Above all, Alfredo hopes that his zeal for sports, dancing and art will serve as an inspiration to his fellow disabled veterans, particularly those who are coping with new injuries and don’t yet have a clear picture that they can still live a full, vibrant and active life.
“I’m very proud to be a part of Paralyzed Veterans of America,” Alfredo says. “It has been the most rewarding experience to be part of a group of guys who are willing to push themselves in cycling in order to show the community that while we are disabled, we can still accomplish a lot of things in life.”
Read more about veterans with disabilities and adaptive sports
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.